• Phil McAuliffe

Connection in a time of social isolation

Updated: May 8

Let’s imagine that this is another one of our life’s metamorphoses: We’ve entered our cocoons and can start doing the work needed to re-emerge as a butterfly at the other end.


If you’re a gay man who’s feeling lost, lonely and socially isolated during this time of social isolation, physical distancing, quarantines and lockdowns, you’re not alone. I’m here to help.

But if you’re feeling lonely and socially isolated and are looking for a quick fix, please keep scrolling as my work is not for you. Sadly, there is no quick fix to any feelings of chronic loneliness and social isolation that arise within us as we respond and adapt to new realities. That work is done within us, consistently and over time, and with some help.

This post also isn’t advice on how to use social media (although it does contain a few suggestions). The internet is already full of advice on that.

As you read this post, please keep in mind that you’re going to be reading these words from your own perspective and informed by your current circumstances and experiences. Therefore, the advice in this post starts generally and I’ll leave it to you to extrapolate to your own circumstances. The advice then becomes connection-specific towards the end of the post.

This post is longer than usual and is designed to help you through this period on enforced isolation and to use it as an opportunity to begin building – or renovating – your three pillars of connection: with yourself, those most important to you and to your communities.

As you start reading, let’s imagine that this is another one of our life’s metamorphoses: we’ve entered our cocoons and can start doing the work needed to emerge as a butterfly at the other end. How can we do this? Ah, you’re in the right place.

These are extraordinary times

We’ve not experienced anything the size and scale of this global pandemic, the fallout and the global response in our living memories. We can, of course, draw parallels and look to our own personal life experiences and global history as a guide, but they’re only a guide.

What once was is now gone

I invite you to think back to 1 January 2020. Where were you? What were you doing? What plans were you hatching in your life for the coming year? What were you looking forward to in 2020?

How are those plans looking now? Yep. I thought so. A friend told me the other day that he had erased all the previous plans for 2020 off his whiteboard and is starting over. Life has thrown us all a curve ball and we’re reminded that we are all part of something way bigger than ourselves.

We’re allowed to feel exactly how we feel

How does the fact that so much has changed feel? Are you angry? Sad? Scared? Frustrated? Despondent? Are you grieving for what’s been lost? Are you relaxed? Are you feeling grateful? Are you happy to be home? Have you adapted to the new reality? Are you excited for what’s next?

We’re allowed to feel exactly how we feel. We’re even allowed to feel multiple feelings at the same time.

Remember: We are more than our feelings, but feelings are there to be felt. They are signals that something was, or is, important to us. As uncomfortable as they are sometimes, feelings are invitations to get curious about why we’ve responded in this way.

What we’re not allowed to do is to ignore or deny our feelings. We’re certainly not allowed to deny anyone else their feelings or their voice when expressing them. There is no one right way to feel in any given situation.

Use social media for good

Now, more than ever, is the time to use social media for good.

I know we’re good at using social media anyway (it’s how many of you are getting to read these words, after all) and there are plenty of platforms to help us keep connected with those around us. Witness the rise of Houseparty and Zoom for keeping us socially connected.

We must remember that we generally see other peoples’ highlight reels on social media. We see the polished finished product. We see the great food. The quaffing of wine. We see the buff body with great hair and perfect teeth living his best life even in the midst of a lockdown. We see his ‘throwback’ post to previous times when he was draped over a sun lounge in a skimpy Andrew Christian swimsuit in St. Tropez last year. You know what I mean.

For this, we must resist the urge to compare our current reality with what we see on our screens. This will be the topic of a further blog post in the future, but for now, you have my permission to unfollow someone who makes you feel bad about yourself. Life’s too short for that shit.

I know that you’re not using social media to make other people feel bad, either. The world doesn’t need more keyboard warriors, now or ever.

Is it a breakdown or a breakthrough?

If we’re feeling despondent about what we’ve lost or about our current physical, mental and emotional situation, ask ourselves this: is this a breakdown or a breakthrough?

Without wanting to sound like an Instagram philosopher (like the world needs more of them…), no lasting change ever comes from when everything is going well in our lives. There’s simply no reason to change when it’s all going well. We must experience the breakdown before we have the first breakthrough.

The breakdown is shit, so we must reach out for help to get us through it. Talk to someone who will listen and respond with empathy. These two characteristics – listen AND empathy – are critical. The moment someone says the words ‘at least’ when responding to you, they’re not responding with empathy no matter how well intentioned they may be.

The situation is yours and it’s yours to solve, but we never have to do the work alone. We must reach out to someone who has earned the right to hear our stories: our husbands, boyfriends, partners, friends, a coach or a counsellor.

Again, I want to revisit this in greater detail in a future blog post.

We have the power of changed perspective

It’s easy for us to feel overwhelmed. What had seemed so sound and secure is now in doubt: Our employment. Our finances. Our housing. Our ability to buy food.

Undeniably, these worries can be deeply unsettling. We can find ourselves in a spiral of doubt fuelled by anxiety and the feeling that we are being carried along by events far outside our control.

It feels that way because we ARE being carried along by events far outside of our control. Here’s the thing: We always have been.

For me, I find great comfort in the philosophy of classical stoicism. In classical stoic thought, there is no ‘would be’, no ‘could be’, no ‘should be’ and no ‘may be’: there’s simply ‘is’.

This perspective helps me accept that which I cannot control and focus on what I can. I can always control my words, thoughts and actions in response to an event. No matter how much I want to or believe that I can, I can’t control world events or the words, thoughts and actions of anyone else. This helps me approach life with humility and accept what is; not what I think, and feel, should be.

For me, there is great power in this.

On connection: We’ve been handed a gift

“Finally! We’re getting to the good stuff on connection.” I hear you say.

As perverse as this may sound, I feel that life has given us a gift. It's removed that which we knew to be normal and has flipped things around for us. As we work to find our new normal and work through this form of breakdown, we have an opportunity to enact real change in our lives. Now is as good as it’s going to ever get for us to do some serious introspection.

If you’ve suspected that, as a gay man, you’ve been chronically lonely and socially isolated, now is a good time to begin constructing our three pillars of connection and start the work we need to do to authentically connect with ourselves, those around us and with our communities.

On connection: how do you numb?

The first question that I want us to consider is how are we numbing any thoughts and feelings associated with chronic loneliness and social isolation? Are you drinking more than usual? Are you abusing illicit and/or prescribed drugs? Are you using sex (including porn) to feel something? Are you eating more than usual? Smoking more than usual? Watching TV? Sharing every thought on social media? Work? Exercise? Writing advice blogs?

And if you think that you’re not numbing, think again. We all numb. Sometimes it serves us, sometimes it doesn’t. We can do great things when we identify both when, and how, we numb.

When we stop numbing we are left with that which we were avoiding. This can be very uncomfortable and can feel like a breakdown. Great things can happen from this point.

On connection: do something that serves you

You may have noticed that I use the term ‘serve’. If you’re unfamiliar with it, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ drip with self-judgement. Think rather than ‘I shouldn’t do this, it’s wrong.’, we can ask ourselves ‘Does what I’m doing now serve me?’


Sunshine is good for the soul

For example, if you’re feeling lonely or socially isolated and you catch yourself mindlessly scrolling through social media, ask the question ‘Does this serve me right now?’ If not, do something that does serve you. Reach out to your family or to a friend and talk over the phone or via video.

If we feel ourselves retreating into our own thoughts, ask ‘What’s something that serves me, right now?’ and answer honestly.


On connection: beware the fallacy of ‘fine’

Loneliness is nasty and insidious. It turns us into master story tellers about our situation and the situation encountered by others. It also can make us resentful of what we perceive others have.

Is it just me, or whenever someone close to you reaches out and asks us how you are, do you simply answer ‘great’ or ‘fine’ and make out like everything is great? I know that it’s not just me.

We must resist ‘fine’ if we are feeling lonely and socially isolated.

For me, I was so ashamed that I felt lonely and I wanted to retreat into myself. I didn’t want to admit that I was lonely to anyone, least of all myself. I became amazing at building and maintaining the façade that everything was, indeed, fine.

I was so perennially fine that I gave no one a reason to ask how I was. DAYS would go by. Inwardly, I resented that no one asked me how I was, and this fuelled my thoughts and feelings of loneliness further. See the cycle here?

This will be the topic of another blog post, but for now, when asked how we are by someone who has earned the right to hear our stories and we know will respond with empathy – and someone has – we must answer truthfully.

On connection: it’s easier to connect with others and our communities

Connection is the antidote to loneliness, and as readers of my blog, you know that there are three pillars to connection: connection to self, to others and to our communities.

Connecting with others and our communities is a great place to start. Reaching out and speaking via phone or video with a friend or a group of friends is fantastic. Joining – or starting – a group on Facebook is also a great idea. Join or start a group that dedicated to your interests, causes, hobbies, beliefs and ideals.

Want to join?

Here’s a picture of how I started one for my apartment building a few weeks ago to help me and my neighbours get to know each other and to help each other out during the lockdown.


We’re likely connecting to each other through these avenues already. Now’s a good time to run the ‘are they serving me?’ ruler over them. If they don’t serve us, make us feel bad about ourselves or are just plain annoying, we’re always allowed to unfollow, unsubscribe or unfriend. Life’s too short.


On connection: it’s harder to connect with yourself

I’ve written on the importance of connecting with ourselves before and I will into the future. It’s HARD but I maintain that it’s the secret to connection. It requires us to put our authentic selves into the world – even those parts of us that we want to hide out of fear of judgement and of not being accepted.

As gay men, we all likely experience this feeling with some regularity and we know how life can feel when we accept ourselves for who we are and simply be ourselves [more on this in the future, too].

#truth

Now is a great time to work within ourselves in the absence of other distractions.

On connection: reach out for help

As uncomfortable and unwelcome as the circumstances may be, we have an opportunity to work on ourselves and get to the root of our feelings of chronic loneliness and social isolation. We face the same decision that we’ve always had when contemplating change: Do we grow or stay how we are?

If we want to take the opportunity, please reach out. There are lots of services available to help us through this period – including ones that I provide.

I have a list of resources on my site if you feel that you need support. I also have detailed my services to help gay men.

Finally

When we are feeling lonely, we can convince ourselves that we are the only man feeling how we feel. We’re never alone. You’re never alone.

Let's emerge as our amazing selves

Let’s use this mandated cocooning as a time to metamorphosise and emerge into the world as our amazing selves.


Where to now?

Connection is the antidote to loneliness. Subscribe to my website through either a basic subscription (free) or premium subscription (monthly charge) and let’s stay connected as we work to de-stigmatise loneliness and promote authentic connection for gay men.

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Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and are intended to support, challenge and inspire gay men to consider the issue of loneliness and increase awareness of the need for authentic connection with themselves, with others and their communities as an antidote to loneliness. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional. Please consult the Resources page if you feel that you need the services of a licensed helping professional.

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